Blog Post 3: The small house movement

What is the small house movement?

The tiny house movement, aka small house or small home movement (although some would argue the distinction between ‘small’ and the even smaller ‘tiny’), promotes living in small spaces, usually less than around 50 square metres (Gallagher 2013), although again the exact size that constitutes a small or tiny house is much debated. A ranges of websites, organisations, blogs and books advocate the small house movement and provide advice to the small house community and those wishing to join it. These include Sarah Susanka’s book The Not So Big House (1997), smallhousesociety.net, thetinylife.com and littlediggs.com.

The movement is also often associated with New Urbanist movements, as the principles of the two movements are often considered compatible (Not So Big House). The information below from The Tiny Life talks about ‘tiny house people’, classifying them as a particular group, and appears to promote this group as being wealthier and better educated than average.

Info graphic

Why does the movement seem radical?

iron house 2

The concept of a small, affordable and even portable house is definitely not new, even in ‘newer’ nations like the United States of America and Australia – in Melbourne examples still exist of the small prefabricated iron cottages (see photo above) lived in by gold rush migrants (National Trust). The necessity for small houses and small houses themselves have existed in our cultures for a long time and yet in 2009 the average size of a new house was 201 square in the United States metres and 214 square metres in Australia (Shrink That Footprint). Given that ‘small house people’, now and in the past prove that it is possible to live in smaller spaces, one has to ask why the houses we build now are so comparatively large.

Why is living in a tiny house now considered so unusual that it warrants its own ‘movement’ and campaigns to defend and promote it as a lifestyle? The answer is found in our evolution to become hyper-consumerist societies. The concept of the American Dream and home ownership became totally entwined, with owning a home becoming a physical representation of good citizenship and strong communities (Gallagher 2013, p. 65). The Australian Dream presented a similar idea – that pride in one’s house was essential to the moral fabric of society (Greig 2012). The large suburban house emerged as an ideal due to a very wide range of factors, including manipulation through marketing and policy by governments and businesses (Gallagher pp. 53-78, Greig 2012 p. 375).

Encouraged to be perfect consumers, we continued to increase the size of our houses – even between 2000 and 2010 the size of the average American home doubled (Botsman & Rogers 2010, p. 14). The impact of consumerism generally on the size of houses should perhaps not be underestimated, as if the house is not big enough to store the products we buy, we require additional storage. Despite the increase in house sizes, self-storage became a 22 billion dollar industry in the US, and its use has gone up over 740 percent in the past couple of decades (Botsman 2010, p. 13), perhaps an indication of our infinite capacity for consumption.

Why do people live in small houses?

Logically less materials are required to both build and run (including heating and cooling) a smaller house compared to a larger house. This has benefits for the environment and cost benefits for the owners and/or occupiers. Due to the lower cost, people may not feel as pressured to work long hours, for instance to pay a mortgage, and a smaller house also naturally requires less time engaged in household maintenance and chores. The result of these factors is that people who live in small houses can use this time to participate in other activities which they find more valuable than living in a large house. The promotional style video below, from Tiny Life, provides explanations of what small house living means to some.

Interestingly, some of these speakers suggest that not focusing on their house allows them greater involvement with their community and stronger relationship bonds, making them a better citizen. Of course, this doesn’t totally contrast with more mainstream ideas of the American (or Australian) Dream, as many seem to consider one of the greatest benefits as being a lack of mortgage. In a large sense the focus is still on ownership, in this case outright ownership.

Collaborative consumption as part of tiny house lifestyle

Living in a small house is not the norm in societies such as America and Australia, which prompts questions about how people live in small houses. What patterns of living do they need to change in order to live small? For instance, in a tiny house, there is very limited room for every article you wish your home would contain, and so people who live in tiny houses must find ways to overcome this. Of course, one way is to simply consume less, but collaborative consumption, aided by technology allows consumption of goods and services without physically taking up much space in the home. Collaborative consumption doesn’t actually mean eating off of another person’s plate, but merely sharing goods and services.

One example of how collaborative consumption can help tiny house occupants is in providing entertainment. Books, movies, music and games, all things which can entertain you for an endless amount of time and although all these items take up a lot of room, there are online communities which allow you to borrow and return goods you wish to have. Such services which you may be familiar with are Gumtree or Craigslist. These services allow you to loan or borrow other peoples items for a reasonable price, where at the end of the loan period you return it back to their rightful owners. Rather than purchasing movies on DVDs, movies and television shows are now able to be imputed into a hard drive which can be easily connected to your television. In addition to this, with the help of mobile phones and laptops, books, music and games are able to be stored into one tiny portable device which you may store away without it taking up too much room. The popular streaming services such as Netflix, iTunes and Foxtel are also a large help for those living in tiny houses. Netflix has quickly become one of the most popular streaming services which once began as a DVD subscription service (DMR 2015). According to DMR (2015) Netflix was found in 1997 and only launched in 1999, and yet in 2015 the total number of Netflix subscribers in the U.S is 40 million with users spending 10 billion hours per month using this service. In a tiny house, having this service would significantly assist those in having the entertainment they desire yet save space through not requiring the purchase and storage of DVDs. Having it on their laptop which they can potentially connect to their television screens if they have one is much more convenient in the tiny house.

A tiny house example: Katrina Cottages

One example of a kind of tiny house is the Katrina Cottages or Mississippi Cottages. The need for these cottages arose after Hurricane Katrina (Evans-Cowley & Canter 2010, p. 36). The trailers distributed to those in need of emergency housing post Katrina by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA trailers) proved inadequate and even unsafe, due to high levels of formaldehyde in the building materials and so the Katrina Cottages were designed as an alternative (Evans-Cowley & Canter 2010, p. 39), although the photo below shows that the mayor of Bay St Louis embraced his FEMA trailer, decorating it in the Palladian style to look almost like a mini White House.

neopalladian trailer

The cottages are aesthetically historically appropriate to the area affected by Hurricane Katrina, resembling the shotgun houses typically found before Katrina (Evans-Cowley & Canter 2010). Designed to be temporary-to-permanent, rather than just for 18 months like the FEMA trailers, the cottages are designed to be extended over time and to withstand high winds (Evans-Cowley & Canter 2010). The cottages encountered a problem which many small houses do, which is that local discriminatory zoning laws made the siting of cottages problematic and that in particular neighbours who had spent more on their housing were concerned about the value of their properties (Evans-Cowley & Canter 2010, p. 44). In this example the idea of Greig (2012, p. 375) of using housing as commodity and not for our needs, would appear to apply just as much in the US as in Australia. Imitations of the cottages are pervasive and so to officially be a ‘Katrina Cottage’ certification is needed from the New Urbanist Guild (Gillette 2006). While the Cottages were created to meet the need for emergency housing, New Urbanists have championed the cottage as affordable housing solution in non-emergency situations as well (CNU 2006).

Conclusion

From the discussion in this post we can conclude that the small house movement, including Katrina Cottages, threaten the established suburban consumer society which exists both in Australia and the US. They attempt to redefine our concept of home and what it means to live a good life. The Tiny Life explains resistance to the concept, ‘People work their whole lives to get as much stuff as they can, to suggest that is wrong, in a way, is to suggest their life’s work is wrong.’ Of course we changed from being a producer society living in small houses to our current society, so it is not impossible that the trend will be reversed in the future.

References

Botsman, R and Rogers, R 2010, What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, HarpersCollins Publishers, New York.

DMR, ‘By The Numbers: 45+ Amazing Netflix Statistics and Facts’, Viewed 27 May 2015 from http://expandedramblings.com/index.php/netflix_statistics-facts/

Evans-Cowley, J and Canter, A 2010 ‘Hurricanes, Oil Spills, and Discrimination – Oh My: The Story of the Mississippi Cottage’, Journal of Affordable Housing & Community Development Law, vol. 20, no. 1 (Fall 2010), pp. 35-78.

Gallagher, L 2013, The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving, Penguin Books, New York. Greig, A 2012, ‘House and Home’ in Sociology: Antipodean Perspectives. Little Diggs, viewed 27 May 2015, http://www.littlediggs.com/.

National Trust, ‘Stories from the Iron Houses’, viewed 27 May 2015, https://www.nationaltrust.org.au/Assets/9921/1/StoriesfromtheIronHousesResourceKit.pdf.

Not So Big House, ‘Not So Big Community and New Urbanism’, viewed 28 May 2015, http://www.notsobighouse.com/urbanism.asp.

Shrink That Footprint, ‘How Big is a House, Average House Size by Country’, viewed 27 May 2015, http://shrinkthatfootprint.com/how-big-is-a-house.

Tiny Life, http://thetinylife.com/.

Small House Society, viewed 27 May 2015, http://smallhousesociety.net/.